Katmai National Park, Alaska

Today is the 100th birthday of our National Park Service.

Visiting every National Park, Monument, Recreation Area, Forest and Historic Site is on my bucket list. Thanks to my adventurous husband, we have visited a lot of these national treasures already. But there are a lot more to visit and some I want to go back to and explore more of.

Today, in celebration of our National Park Services 100th birthday, I want to share with you one of the National Parks we visited in 2005. I have a hard time picking a favorite park, as they are all unique and beautiful. So, I have picked one that is one of our most memorable family adventures—Katmai National Park in Alaska.

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The memories that we created at Katmai National Park and the unique adventure we had there, makes this a standout park for me……and I would dare say it is for my husband and my boys as well.

What an adventure we had…..from our first flight on a float plane to landing on the water and seeing a mama bear and her cubs on the beach near us to the fabulous meals we enjoyed and the bears EVERYWHERE……this was an adventure we would not soon forget.

Our preparation for the overnight to Katmai National Park was easy…..we left most things in our rental car at the airport. All we could take was our change of clothes and toiletries…….NO FOOD was allowed in our bags or in our cabin while we were there…..Yes, NO FOOD in the cabin we would be staying in….YIKES! Would the bears REALLY enter our cabin if we had food? I wasn’t about to find out so I made sure neither boy snuck any snacks!

Finally we boarded the plane from the dock. We were on the last flight because we were staying overnight. The day trippers were on the earlier flights to give them more time with the bears. The flight was not as bad as I had expected and the scenery below us was beautiful. Watching out the window as we came in for our landing we could see a big bear soaking in the water near the beach……and as we stepped out of the plane onto the beach we were told to go straight into the welcome building because there was a mama bear and her cubs on the beach…..safety first.

Welcome to Katmai National Park!

We had a bear safety presentation where they told us to make sure we clapped and said “hey bear” as we walked the trails to the river viewing platforms…..that way we would not surprise any bears! Oh my!

We then were taken to the lodge to check in and given the key to our cabin. It was a cute little cabin with two sets of bunk beds and a bathroom. This was going to be fun. From our front door we could see part of the river and the trampled grass from the bears walking by…….Yes, bears roamed around the cabins.

The trail to the viewing platform took us across the river where a park ranger stopped us at a platform…..there was a bear on the trail ahead and the park ranger was holding us all at this point until the bear moved on……safety first!

The bear moved on and so did we. We walked down the dirt road with others and then took the turn into the woods, following the path to the river and the viewing platforms. At this point the four of us were alone……so the boys sang songs……all kinds of songs so that we wouldn’t startle a bear. And then we arrived…..

The viewing platform was built up off the ground and the ramp going up to the platform had a small rope across it…..like THAT would keep the bears out! And then we passed through the bear proof door. Okay, safe now. We stopped at the first viewing area and watched a young bear trying to catch a fish……he splashed and stuck his head under the water, trying so hard to catch the salmon swimming around him……but he never did. He was fun to watch.

Then we continued down the raised walkway toward the viewing platform at the falls. Suddenly, beneath us was a bear……he had a salmon and was looking for a spot to eat it. He walked right under us…..we could have reached down and touched him. AMAZING!

Then we exited through the bear proof door, out onto the platform and we were greeted with a spectacular view of the falls and the many bears in the river seeking salmon to eat.

We were not alone on the platform as the day visitors were still there. We watched those bears for a very long time—young and old, in the water and on land. The platform we were on had a ramp that went down to the ground and again, just a rope across to keep the bears out……hmmmmm…….

And then we headed back to the cabin for a rest and dinner with plans to go back to the falls after dinner.  Dinner was a delicious buffet with steak and salmon–heaven! 

After dinner we headed back down the trail.  The day visitors had left and with them went the park rangers that had been out on the trails and viewing platforms…….there was no one to stop us if a bear was blocking our path and no one with bear spray or the air horn to help if we needed it..…..it was just the four of us and the bears.  It was 8pm and we had the trail to ourselves. The boys sang crazy songs to let the bears know we were coming so we would not startle them. While they sang, my eyes and ears were on alert for any movement in the bushes we passed.

We arrived at the viewing platform and made our way out to the falls. We were alone with the bears. We stood on the platform watching over 20 bears in the river and on top of the falls. We watched them eat, relax and play.

We watched an old bear on top of the falls catch a fish that tried jumping up the falls—AMAZING! When he walked off with his fish to eat it, a young bear took his spot……but the young bear was too impatient to catch the fish and kept a watchful eye toward the older bear so he could leave before the older bear came back. It was so cool to watch.

And then at one point a mama bear with her two cubs came walking up to the river, right below where we stood on the platform. They were so cute!

Nowhere else in the world could we get this close to wild, huge brown bears. And they could have cared less about us…..all they needed were the salmon that were running upstream to spawn. Even the seagulls could get close to the bears without fear of being eaten….that Is how focused the bears were.

We had a restful nights sleep and woke ready to see more bears and ready for our tour to the Valley of 10,000 smokes. After the tour we had to rush to get to our float plane for the flight out…..but we were held up by a “bear jam” at the river…..5 young bears frolicking in the river and on the trail delayed us getting to the lodge. When they finally wandered off we were free to go.

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Katmai National Park is an adventurers delight! We hope to go back one day with others who want to join us on a great adventure.

Happy 100th Birthday, National Park Service!

Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef National Park

We had planned our vacation to southern Utah for months, researching the area and making lists of ALL the places we wanted to visit and explore. It was a packed trip, filled with long drives, hikes, short walks, dirt roads and amazing photo opportunities. The places we visited exceeded our expectations……far more stunning in person than any pictures we had seen.

I could write a book about the places we explored.

But one place sticks out in our minds as more spectacular and memorable than the others.

I don’t know if it stands out because of the effort it took to get to this spot—fording a river and then driving 27 miles on a bumpy, rutted, winding dirt road, just to get to the overlook of the valley that was our main destination. And then it was then another 30 miles on a dirt road that had sections that had washed out in the recent rains, and that crossed muddy washes before we return to pavement. A lot of effort to visit and explore this part of Capital Reef National Park, effort that may not have been worth it for another place……but what we found was breathtaking!

Or maybe it stands out as one of the best parts of our trip because of the solitude found on those dirt roads……we passed one truck at the 27-mile point that was going the opposite direction from us. And then we passed 2 vehicles traveling together just 15 miles from the end of our drive. For most of our over 4 hours we were alone in this amazing world………alone with the wondrous natural world that surrounded us and delighted our souls.

Getting to Cathedral Valley, in Capitol Reef National Park, is not for the faint of heart and is not a valley that many get to see. This part of the park requires a high clearance vehicle and sometimes, especially after rains, requires 4-wheel drive. I am so grateful that we had an SUV for this trip and that my husband has the skills and the adventurous spirit needed to venture into this dramatic world. I feel blessed that we were able to visit this valley, to see for ourselves just how awesome the forces of nature are and how amazing this land is that God made.

The first part of the drive to Cathedral Valley was on Hartnet road, a dirt road that wound through the Bentonite hills, and one that started by driving into and across the Fremont River. This first 27 miles was beautiful. Each turn in the road brought another spectacular view……I was in heaven, delighting in all that my eyes could see.

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And then we arrived at the overlook for Upper Cathedral Valley. We stood there, looking down at the valley below us, mesmerized by the enormity of the rock formations—the Cathedrals—and by the colors before us. Just the two of us, no one else……no other cars, no music blaring from someone’s phone, no cell service at all………just silence, solitude and peace. A moment in a place that allowed us to get in touch with us, with our spirit and to commune with nature and with God.

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And then we drove down into the valley. WOW!!

We stopped there in the valley that we had seen from above, unprepared for the enormity of the Cathedrals next to us. Standing there next to the red rocks, we felt so small. I could feel how tiny my place in this Universe really is. These monoliths had been carved over thousands of years by wind and water to create the majestic Cathedrals that stood in the middle of the valley.

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We took our time driving the Cathedral Valley dirt road, slowing down to cross the muddy washes and stopping to mark washed out roads with rocks to warn drivers that would come after us. And we stopped to take in all of the beauty surrounding us, enjoying the formations, naming many of them to reflect what they resembled to us.  And then we arrived at the lower Cathedral Valley and the much anticipated Temples of the Sun and Moon. These were more than we had anticipated……much more. The size of these temples rising from the floor of the Valley surprised us.

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This was a fantastic way to spend the 4th of July, our nations birthday. And while other National Parks in southern Utah were packed with visitors, we were almost entirely alone, to marvel at the power of nature and enjoy the natural Cathedrals where we could feel the presence of God and commune with Him. 

On our drive through Cathedral Valley we wondered why the National Park Service did not pave at least half of the route, so that others could see the amazing, dramatic valley………but then we decided that we like it better this way…….it takes a lot of effort and skill to visit Cathedral Valley and that keeps many people from visiting.

And maybe that is why it is so magical and peaceful. And maybe that is why it is one of the most memorable parts of our trip into Southern Utah.

Nature as the Artist

I love art. But I am not an artist. I admire those whose creativity comes through in the many art forms.

I love to see architecture, the artistry simply amazes me.

I love public art……from statues in public places to the murals painted on walls of buildings to graffiti in an alley and everything in between.

I love the art created by Christmas lights every December.

The Sistine chapel has always fascinated me, so seeing it in person left me speechless.

I love to visit art museums and local artists when we travel.

Art inspires me. Manmade art is stunning and beautiful to behold.

But natural art, created by the forces nature makes my heart sing.

As a child I loved to lay in the grass and look up at the clouds as they took on many different forms, changing as they drifted over my head. Nature as an artist at its finest.

And as a teenager I discovered the beauty in the artistry of water and wind over the red rocks of Arizona……I was awed and could not take my eyes off the sculptures created by the forces of nature.

I have always loved a forest filled with green trees, brown trunks and the many colors of wildflowers painted across the landscape. And then as an adult, I was introduced to the beauty of trees that were bare, the leaves having fallen away in autumn. I am amazed at the beauty created by those branches reaching upward and outward and thankful for the friend who taught me to “see” those trees in a new way.

Nature is quite the artist.

And my latest trip into Southern Utah reminded me once again, why I love the outdoors and just how breathtaking the artistry of nature can be.

We saw wood work—twisting and turning–beautiful–

We saw how nature painted a canvas of colors and murals on the hillsides and how water painted stripes and shaped the rocks through the ages.

We saw how the forces of water and wind can carve rock into amazing creations, that like the clouds change with the angle and the direction of the sunlight highlighting the works.

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And we saw glass….a mountain of glass in the middle of the red valley, surround by red rocks and bluffs and sand—created by water and wind……unexpected art that delighted the soul.

 

I love art.

And art created from nature is one of my favorites….it makes my heart sing and my soul dance. I could spend hours……days even…..exploring this art and never feel I have seen the same piece twice.

Nature is an amazing artist.

Fording the River

We were on the third day of our trip through Southern Utah when we arrived in Capitol Reef National Park. We were extremely excited to check another National Park off our bucket list.

We knew we wanted to see Cathedral Valley, but to see that part of the park required driving 57 miles on a dirt road…….one that required a high clearance vehicle and often 4-wheel drive, especially after a rain storm and it required fording a river. But, it had been raining over the past few days and had rained quite a lot the night before our arrival………and it was getting cloudy. Since we could see the building thunderstorms moving our way, we thought it would be best to stop at the Visitor Center first to check on the condition of the dirt road and the river.

The park ranger at let us know that the river was running higher than normal and the last report on road conditions was from the day before we arrived and before the overnight rains. That report was that the road was muddy and required 4-wheel drive. I figured after hearing that from the ranger and since more rain was coming very soon, that we would NOT be driving across the river and into Cathedral Valley….at least not until the next day when it was expected to be sunny…….

But, my husband had other ideas.

He wanted to see the river for himself and then decide whether or not we would go or wait.

So we drove to the dirt road that would lead to the river ford.

It was getting darker…….the storms were getting closer. I was panicking………

I did NOT want to drive into the river or across the river.

The river was running too fast for me………

And how many times have we heard that we should NEVER drive into running water, especially during or after a summer rain storm? I began to think my husband had lost his mind. And even if we could safely ford the river, how were we going to navigate a muddy, dirt road, through washes filling with water from the rain and not get stuck? There was no cell phone service and if we got stuck out there who would come get us? How would anyone know where we were?

Yes, I was in a panic!

My husband checked the river and then said we were going through. He knew it would be safe and we would make it.

And we did. I recorded us fording the river, panic coming through in my voice, and tears flowing down my cheeks. And then we were out of the river, safely on the other side.

I could breathe…….maybe…….

We drove a couple miles down the dirt road and the rain started coming down faster…….in the distance we could see the pouring rain………too much rain, coming toward us. My panic grew.

Thankfully my husband decided we would be safer driving this road the next day when it was expected to be sunny and warm and we turned around.

But turning around meant going back through the river……I couldn’t stop the panic swelling deep inside me. I couldn’t stop the fear. I couldn’t stop the tears.

My husband asked me as we drove back toward the river what was scaring me, did I not trust him to keep me safe or trust his abilities? No, that wasn’t what scared me. I trusted him. I knew he would always keep me safe.

It was deeper than that.

As we approached the river, the realizations were hitting me square in the face.

If we got stuck, out there where no one would find us……if we slid off the side of a bluff on the slippery, muddy roads…….if the rushing water of the river washed us away………I would not live past the age my mother had been when she died. I would not get to my 52nd birthday. That thought paralyzes me. I HAVE to make it to my 52nd birthday. I HAVE to live to experience the things my mother never got to do. I CANNOT leave my boys at the same age my mother was.

In that moment fording the physical river became so much more for me. I was fording my river of fear. I was fording the river of this year……the year of learning to breathe rather than holding my breath.

Fording the river of my biggest fear is scary, difficult and at times paralyzing. But just as my husband kept me safe while we forded the physical river, I know that as long as I have him, my family, my friends and God by my side, I can and will ford this river and I can and will get through this year………one river ford at a time.

IMG_6169And just to let you know, we did go back the next day and we successfully forded the river. And I did not panic…..as my husband said “the third time’s the charm”.  This is the river……not too scary, is it?

 

Facing Fear while hiking in a National Monument

When my husband planned our vacation for this summer I was ready for an adventure. Our vacations are not relaxing vacations, most of the time, anyway. Our vacations are more of an adventure, an experience, and after our adventure we usually need a vacation.

And sometimes on our adventure vacations, I learn new things about myself and I often face my fears.

This adventure had me facing my fear of heights, again, and my fear of lightning storms…both at the same time on the same hike.

I am scared of heights………I approach overlooks and edges with caution, often standing back far enough to not feel as if I will fall to what I know will be my certain death. And my husband loves to find ways to push me into facing that fear. So, with shaking legs and hands, heart beating out of my chest and a feeling that I may just pass out, I went with my husband on the hike he had chosen for us.

But this time on our hike, as I faced and conquered my fear of heights, I had to also face my fear of lightning storms, a fear brought about by a severe thunderstorm that produced a tornado when I was in first grade……….a long held fear that has me hiding under my blankets at night when lightning strikes…..a fear that grips me and keeps me from venturing outside or near an open door when I hear the first clap of thunder. I am so scared that I will be struck by lightning that I run as fast as I can if I am outside, seeking shelter from the storm……..on this hike, I couldn’t run….I was hiking and going up a steep trail when thunder came rolling in.

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Going down the stairs near the beginning of the hike.

We were in Natural Bridges National Monument. It was evening, close to sunset. And it was cloudy and lightly raining when we arrived. The rain slowed and then stopped so we headed out on our hike to Sipapu Bridge. The hike down to the canyon floor under Sipapu bridge was not long, it was only .6 miles. But it was steep, descending 500 feet in the .6 miles. There was a set of steep stairs and 3 wooden ladders along the trail to help us get to lower sections. The ladders scared me…..not being able to see where I was stepping, nor how far the ladders descended had me frozen on the rungs, unable to take that next step…..until my husband guided me, making me feel safe enough to travel down the rest of the ladder.

 

There was a moment when my fear told me that there was no way I was going down those rocks and that the view I had at that moment was close enough. We had reached a point on the trail where metal railings had been cemented into the rock so that we could hold on and not fall as we descended down the steep rock…..ugh! I saw that and froze. Nope! No need to go any further. My fear said to just look at the natural bridge from here and wait for my husband to finish the hike and return to me.

And then I realized that fear is irrational and illogical. And I was not going to let it stop me from experiencing the view from underneath the natural rock bridge. So, with my husband’s guidance and reassurance and despite my legs feeling like jello, I grabbed that railing with a grip so tight I thought I just might pull the rail out of the rock and I finished the hike down to the bottom.

It was worth every shaky, anxiety filled moment! The view beneath that bridge was breathtaking. I felt so small standing under the rocks. And I felt so proud of myself. This was one of those moments that had me glowing!

And then it was time to climb 500 feet back up out of the canyon on the return .6-mile hike. It was steep. It was scary. And my legs shook again as I walked along the edge of the rock, up the ladders and grabbed the railing with a death grip. My heart beat fast and hard, from the fear and from the exertion of climbing up the 500 feet.

We made it half way up and stopped to take in the view. How tiny we felt standing there, awed by the stunning beauty that lay before us.

And then………the thunder. My heart jumped, my body shook. I still had a long way to climb up…….a ladder and the steep set of stairs between me and the safety of our vehicle. No way was I going to stick around for lightening to strike me, or the trees around me, or the rock that I was hiking on. Time for this girl to move and move fast.

And fast we went. I forgot about the height and the drop off next to me and moved quickly up the trail, praying I would reach the top before the lightening got me.

I was almost to the top…….I could almost touch the top and could see the SUV but I couldn’t breathe, my heart was beating so hard and fast I thought it was going to jump out of my body. I reached for my husband and let me hold onto him as he helped me to the top. And once we were there, next to the SUV and finally ready to jump inside to safety………and then he made me walk some more to slow my heart rate before climbing into the safety of the SUV…..…..really? in the thunder and lightning?

I did it. Despite my fears I hiked to the bottom and back up.

I did not fall to my certain death. I did not fall and injure myself. I did not get struck by lightning and I did not die of a heart attack.

Fear is irrational, fear is illogical and fear is born of our past experiences.

But facing my fears and pushing past them allows me to see just how strong I can be and lets me experience things that the fear would have had me miss.

I survived. I took the leap. And the experience was amazing!

Chiricahua National Monument

One of my bucket list items is to visit EVERY National Park and National Monument in our country and thanks to my wandering spirited husband, who enjoys traveling and exploring as much as I do, I have been to a lot of the parks and monuments…..there are still many more to visit and some I want to go back to and explore more of.   This past weekend we crossed off another of those bucket list monuments.

This year is about saying ‘yes’ to those things that scare me or are outside my box and it is about living life to it’s fullest, silencing that voice that tells me “no, you can’t do that….you have so much you need to do and you can’t afford to take time for you”.   And I remind myself of this daily.  So when our friends asked us if we wanted to join them for a weekend get-away to do some hiking and celebrate our friend’s birthday, we said yes.  My mind and that voice said that I had a lot to do for work that weekend and I really needed to catch up on some things at home…..but my heart and my choice to celebrate life had me saying yes, let’s go! 

We visited Chiricahua National Monument, located in southeastern Arizona.  What an unexpected delight I found in this part of Arizona.  When we imagine this state, we picture the Grand Canyon, the desert, brown, dry and full of cacti and rattlesnakes.  But this state is so much more.  And here in this out of the way part of Arizona we found the unexpected and that made my soul sing. 

Chiricahua was called the land of the “Standing Up Rocks” by the Chiricahua Apache Indians and after my visit there, I can understand why. The road through the park was closed beyond the Visitor Center so we knew we would not get to see everything, but we could hike and see some of this beautiful monument.

Now when it comes to hiking my husband and I attack it very differently, much like other things in life, yet we find a way to balance it so that we both enjoy what we are experiencing. For my husband it is about the hike, the exercise, the exertion and the time spent in the outdoors, free of all of the distractions of the fast paced world we live in, communing with the nature.  And the hike is done at a pace that keeps him moving, quickly along the trail, getting in the distance he wants to accomplish while pushing his limits.  And the outdoors are his spiritual place, just as it is for me.

Hiking for me is about the feeling of accomplishment when I finish, the photography possibilities, the spiritual feeling I get from being in the outdoors, and the views.  My pace on these hikes is often slower than my husbands, partly because I stop to take pictures or to take in the view or smell a flower and partly because I am just slower, and that is okay. 

I love to take my time on a hike and really “see” what is around me. The ocean is the place I feel the closest to God and to my mom, it is where I find peace.  And time in the outdoors is the next best thing for me.  I feel rejuvenated, refreshed, and peaceful.  I see the greatness of this earth that God created and I marvel at all that is around me.  The diversity in the landscapes leaves me in awe.  The outdoors is my spiritual place. 

 

This hike was amazing. And the diversity of the landscape we hiked through was inspiring, leaving me so grateful that I live in this great nation, full of diverse people and land.  We left the visitor center with no real decision on how far we would hike and usually for me that is scary.  I like to know how far I am going and how long it will take.  And I like to know ahead of time, how much elevation change there will be so that I can be prepared.  Often I look at maps and back out of the long hikes…..4 miles is okay but more than that would be too much…what if I get out there and then I don’t have anything left in my legs to carry me back?  I knew this would be long, but I wanted to just take the leap and go.  And I am so glad I did! 

We went from the pine forest surrounding the visitor center to high points with views that took my breath away.  We traipsed over dirt paths, and snow packed, icy paths. And then we traveled down to the creek bed, crossing the snow covered creek, mostly empty of water, a number of times before hiking up the other side, toward the standing up rocks.  We went from winter to spring and back again.  We happened upon an animal none of us had seen before, the Coatimundi, a relative of the raccoon.  There were four of them and I was thrilled.  We walked through tall rocks, grottos and finished at the top of Echo Canyon……and then we had to turn around and go back. 

The hike, the time outdoors among the trees, rocks and animals and the time spent with friends made my heart and soul come alive and sing. I am happiest when I can be disconnected from the world for a little while, when I can find peace, the time to converse with my spiritual side and can renew my spirit. 

I did this hike and I finished.  We hiked over 9 miles that afternoon, for 5 1/2 hours.  And I did it!  One more time that I accomplished something I didn’t think I could do, I went farther than I thought I could……oh, I was SORE after the hike, but the feeling of accomplishment, the sights I saw, the time spent with friends were all worth the pain in my legs.   

I am really living when I take the leap and just see where it takes me.

And the icing on the cake is when I can cross off another item on my bucket list.